Before getting plowed under by the collectivist juggernaut, we, the Fremont Volunteer Fire Department, would like to offer you our story. I write to you because of REASON Magazine's anti-statist position, as well as your professional knowledge of fire protection. Your Scottsdale story [May] was avidly read down at the station.
Improbably enough, a handful of individualist homeowners created an operating fire department last summer in just four weeks, out of thin air and one aging American-LaFrance pumper. The motivation: to keep free of an added level of government (that of the city of Mountain View, bent on annexing the Fremont Fire District tax base to replenish its over-spent budget).
The giants we've fought in these 10 months range from the firefighter's union to the telephone company (to give us a listed instead of unlisted emergency number)! Just warming up is the custody battle with MVFD over Engine 51, a $100,000 Crown Coach pumper being bought by Fremont taxpayers.
If you should be passing by 644B Sleeper Ave., near the Mountain View stretch of El Camino Real, do stop in and visit with the volunteers and fire buffs.
Mountain View, CA
While I applaud the idea of returning the fire service to a free-market discipline, I find that Robert Poole's article [May] is closer to the realm of fiction than the land of truth. In 1974 I researched the Scottsdale Fire Department controversy and my sources tell me that Poole did not research his REASON article. Poole's article is "God's" truth, compliments of Chief Witzeman.
There is good motivation for Witzeman to play the fabulist. Witzeman really is not operating in the free market but is dependent upon a franchise. Whereas the bureaucratic fire chief may rely upon political power or civil service protection in his relations with management, the private producer must give his employers information to show that he is saving them money. Pursuing this end Witzeman consistently and effectively bends the truth to his own purpose.
Consider the following:
(1) In a May 1970 article, "The Challenges Facing the Fire Service," written for FIRE JOURNAL, Witzeman describes a 1969 Scottsdale fire in which a $750,000 shopping center was lost.
"The glorious thing about firefighting is that in spite of everything chiefs do, we have a big fire and everything goes right…a number of pet ideas we'd been working on in Scottsdale for three years worked like a charm when the chips were down."
The MINNESOTA FIRE CHIEF (May-June, 1973), reporting on the same fire describes what actually happened. It seems that a pickup truck ran over an "innovative" lightweight plastic fire hose, causing it to burst and stopping the flow of water in all of the lines that were on the fire. (Plastic hose is not used by most departments because it is so easy to break.) A fiasco followed with mutual aid from Phoenix and Tempe pitching in to help. Even so, the result was a heavy loss.
(2) In his 1971 Annual Report to the city Witzeman claims that:
"During the year a major reequipping program was virtually completed, to the extent that first-alarm engines were brought to an average age of less than four years. Three new pumpers were put in service to accomplish this, all of them built by the department itself."
Here, following his usual modus operandi, Witzeman is distorting reality to make his department look as good as possible. What he should be saying is that three used trucks that averaged four years of age were purchased and converted to fire engines as first line equipment. He should be saying that these trucks had standard commercial chassis of light construction, they could not carry the heavy, regular fire hose, and out of necessity they had to use the light plastic hose.
(3) Poole reports that Scottsdale has been given a Class 5 fire grade by the Insurance Services Office. Be careful here. Apparently the city has been regraded since I wrote my research paper, but Witzeman used to claim that Scottsdale had a class 6 grade when actually the city was divided into three zones, of which only zone 1 was graded Class 6, and that by virtue of a Class 2 water system supplied by the city of Phoenix. The water supply, the most important item of nine items considered in an insurance grading schedule, compensated for the other items being graded very low and bringing everything altogether up to a grade of 6. Zone 2 was graded Class 8 and Zone 3 was graded Class 9 (very poor grades).
(4) Poole boasts that in 1973 the per capita fire cost for Scottsdale was $5.70, as compared to an average of $24.39 for other cities in the 50,000-100,000 population range. But we are not told that the buildings in Scottsdale are mostly new, that there are actually very few buildings over three stories, that the Motorola electronics plant is the only large industrial plant in the city, and that many of the city's homes are built on lots of one or more acres thereby greatly reducing the danger of conflagration. And what cities is he comparing to? Let's compare Scottsdale to my city of St. Louis Park, Minnesota: pop. 50,000, light residential and apartment housing, loaded with merchantile and industrial properties, many of them large complexes. The average home owner in St. Louis Park paid $5.86 for his fire protection in 1975. This is about the same as the 1975 Scottsdale per capita figure! All of St. Louis Park is graded Class 5.
In conclusion, it is always a mistake for an expository writer to use a man with an axe to grind as his only source of information. Mr. Poole presented an argument from only one viewpoint. If he had researched, he might have discovered that there were others.
St. Louis Park, MN
At REASON's request, Mr. Witzeman replies: I don't know whether to be most irritated because of the time wasted in replying to these intermittent hatchet jobs or to be irritated at the hatchet jobs themselves—but I suspect it is the time demand that irritates me the most!
1. We are not "dependent" upon a franchise in all our areas by a long shot. We are not dependent upon a franchise—i.e., have none—in any of the municipal, fire district, etc., areas which seem to concern this writer. Nor are we dependent upon franchise in a number of our miscellaneous categories. In essence there is probably less than half of our business which is done within franchise areas. And the franchises we have are not the type that restricts somebody else from doing the same thing in our area as a fire district. (Municipalities, etc.—any of these entities can proceed on their own without us if they wish.)
2. The hose wasn't run over by a pickup truck to the best of our knowledge, but there was a hose rupture. It took about five minutes to repair, wasn't the only hose line on the fire so it didn't result in a stoppage of water in "all" of the lines. Large-diameter plastic hose is most certainly used in many departments despite what the writer says and is in fact one of the fastest growing aspects of fire department technology at the present time for reasons that are obvious to most firemen. Phoenix did not turn up on the fire, Tempe did. We certainly do not hesitate to call for mutual aid from neighboring departments when we need it any more than we hesitate to respond to them when they ask us. We respond to other departments approximately 6 times for every once they respond into our area. The fire was certainly a heavy loss, was not attributable to any factors described by the writer and I will stand by my quoted statement 100 percent.
3. As for the age of our fire trucks, I don't know where he got this one even though it is easy to track down the source of most of his statements. One of my hobbies has become tracing down the various hatchet jobs that have been done on me in the past to their source. This is a new one to me. I can't even figure how the twisting of any facts would create this idea.
4. To say that our trucks have to use light plastic hose is equally ridiculous—the only "necessity" to use light plastic hose is the necessity to stay up to date with technology. And that's a very important "necessity."
5. The city most certainly has regraded—not since his "research paper" was written, but about four years prior to it. This may be the best comment on the quality of the letter and the report.
6. The letter makes a good statement of many things we have going for us here in Scottsdale, but somehow ignores the things we don't have going for us—such as our climate which makes things burn like a bomb, some of the old construction that was built without building codes prior to being annexed by the city and other factors. Nonetheless I generally agree that we do have a good city from a fire protection standpoint and further we have worked very hard to get it that way and to keep it that way. We specifically involve ourselves in municipal government functions which affect most of the items listed—controlling high-rise, heavily inspecting construction for code conformance, augmenting codes with such things as tight sprinkler ordinances, etc.
7. If St. Louis Park has a per capita fire protection cost of $5.86 it is to be congratulated. This is an excellent cost factor and the community and the department should be proud. We are soliciting information from the community to analyze their work. —L.W.
I agree fully with the Editorial by Robert Poole, Jr. on the Nuclear Power Issue. Several weeks ago I brought up the insurance issue as being of deep significance in the determination of a YES or NO on the proposition.
The only support I obtained at this public meeting was from the ACLU representative. No rational rebuttal was put forward by any of the industry and utility representatives—in fact they reinforced my points. In brief, if it's so safe and the insurance companies are in the business to make MONEY why not continue to collect the approximately maximum premium rebates they have enjoyed for so long? I learn that the utilities get the rebates which are "so small" per capita as not to warrant refund to the consumer. In toto, of course, the rebates are huge. It sounds like a sure winner for the insurance companies to provide full coverage rather than having the Price-Anderson method. Collusion?
As Poole says, the insurance matter alone completely destroys the whole basis for the techno-economic cost-effectiveness comparisons.
As I said at the meeting, I would rather take my chance in the courts with a full legal liability suit in the event of an accident.
Michael G. Heaviside
I would like to comment upon your editorial in the June issue in re Price-Anderson insurance and correct a few misimpressions that may have been created.
The taxpayers do not "pick up the tab" for the balance of insurance. The utilities pay $90,000 per reactor per year for this insurance from the government acting as the carrier. So far, there has never been a claim against this portion of the insurance and the premiums are accumulating. In addition, there is a $1-million deposit made. All of this accumulates in a fund which, as the number of reactors increase during the present term of the renewed Act, will operate to give sufficient reserves to make the insurance unnecessary thereafter.
While it is true that the estimate of the worst-case accident could total $14 billion, the Rasmussen Report (WASH-1400) assigns to this a probability of one in one billion per plant. I am rather surprised that a responsible libertarian such as Mr. Poole would base his case on a quotation from Senator Gravel, who has anything but libertarian credentials, in estimating the premium cost for full coverage. Rather, I would refer him to the excellent analysis of engineer-economists Boskin and Gilbert from Stanford University in "The California Initiative" by the Stanford University Institute for Energy Studies, in which the following paragraph appears starting on Page 57:
Private insurance companies do not have the resources to fully insure against the risk of nuclear power (or, for that matter, against the risk from hydropower). The Initiative requires complete insurance, and this would not be available from the private sector. There is no reason why this need could not be met by the government. The Price-Anderson Act could be amended to meet most objections by raising the indemnity limitation to, perhaps, $20 billion. Neglecting the costs of administrating (sic) the insurance pool, the appropriate increase in insurance premiums to account for this amendment can be estimated. For a conservative calculation, assume that the probability of an accident that causes more than $560 million in damages is one in one million per reactor year, and if the accident occurs the damage claims will total $20 billion. A fair increase in insurance premiums for each plant would be approximately $20 billion/1 million, or $20,000 per year. A small amount relative to the operating costs of a nuclear power plant.
No project, no individual is completely insured for the maximum conceivable damage that he can cause. Folsom Dam is insured for $50 million, but if it broke in an earthquake 270,000 people would die according to a UCLA study. The problem that Price-Anderson sought to solve was that without sufficient actuarial experience there is no way that a private insurance company could ascertain its exposure. With another 10 years of perfect safety record and more plants on line the private insurance will no doubt be increased. It has already been increased and the premiums lowered.
One thing to remember about Price-Anderson is that it is no fault insurance. The victims, if any, are compensated immediately upon proof of loss, and do not have to wait years in the courts to prove negligence as they would with most private insurance cases.
I cannot view Price-Anderson as anything like "a travesty, a misuse of the law by the powerful at the expense of ordinary citizens." So far, it has cost the taxpayers nothing and with odds of one in a million of an accident exceeding its limits it is likely to never cost the taxpayers anything. Given our present system, Price-Anderson is not only logical but necessary. Only if a nuclear power were developed in a truly libertarian way, without taxation or regulation, would I agree with Mr. Poole that having the government as an insurance carrier is incorrect.
R.W. Johnson, P.E.
Ben Lomond, CA